This week when my friend and professor Dr. Gabriella Lettini posted a link to a Huffington Post article by Marilyn Sewell titled “Saying Goodbye to Tolerance” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marilyn-sewell/saying-goodbye-to-tolerance_b_1976607.html), I was very excited. Earlier this week, I had used Rev. Sewell’s words in the Starr King School for the Ministry chapel service:
The shadow side of our free faith, with its ultimate measure being the individual conscience, is seen when we interpret that freedom as simply “freedom from” and not “freedom for.”*
And I love her observation about Unitarian Universalism that “we are a religious movement that no longer takes religion seriously.”
But as I continued to read the article, I found my attitude shifting. I was struck by what sounded like the same diatribe I hear time and again from bitter ex-Christians in UU congregations who rant about Christianity (and that is clearly reflected in the affirming comments on this article…ex: “I hate xtianity even as I “love” the xtian.”) Of course Marilyn Sewell is a bit different on this front. She was raised a Baptist and clearly and frequently references her Christian roots. But someone from her particular position making the statements contained in this article seems like giving red meat to the anti-Christian lions among UUs. “If she is against Christianity…” In all fairness, Rev. Sewell is very clear through most of the article that she is specifically talking about conservative evangelical Christians, although she occasionally drops both the words “conservative” and “evangelical” at times, so I get the impression she is trying to make a distinction of sorts. But then she invoked Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy … was not the strident clamor of the bad people but the appalling silence of the good people.”
These are deeply prophetic words and quite possibly Rev. Sewell finds her justification in using them in a call for intolerance toward conservative evangelical Christians because King used similar words in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” which is a rallying cry to not wait for the “inevitable” but rather to play an active role in creating change. But I think she’s missed one important point, as do some Unitarian Universalists and other liberals. That is the point of love. And that is a point that was at the core of every action, every word and every deed that was carried out by Martin Luther King, Jr.
My purpose with this blog is to show the link between our spirituality and our bodies. I work with all kinds of bodies: large, small, fit, healthy, ailing, old, young. As I touch someone’s body, or as I ask them to move with their body, I witness the greatest motivating factor that we have in our human existence: that is the power of love (pardon the 80’s cliché.) I would never ask a client to hate or be intolerant of their fat. I would never ask a client to battle their tense neck. The best trainers and therapists understand that you must ask people to meet their challenges head on, without judgement, with total love and appreciation accepting the challenge as part of the totality of who we are. For it is only without judgement that we can elicit change in ourselves…both physically and emotionally. If we are able to have enough tolerance with our failings to understand where they come from, we are able to find a way to confront them honestly and clearly. I believe it is very much the same with the “body” of human kind.
MLK said in his sermon “Loving Your Enemies” (Montgomery, AL, 1957), “hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe.” Just as Rev. Sewell states that oppression is a continuum, I would argue that hatred of any kind, whether it be in violent action or mild intolerance, is just as much of a continuum. Those Unitarian Universalists, existing in a head centered cloud of “me-ligion” may have a lot of trouble grasping what I am trying to convey here, but I guarantee you that even the most conservative southern Baptist understands that we are nothing and nowhere without love. Dr. King’s sermon uses the word “love” 95 times. He goes on at length about the Greek words for love…describing where love can come from, and the power inherent in love…both in regard to Jesus Christ and to all people in general. He is not afraid to base his theology and his hopes for a better world on love. This is the corner stone of Dr. King’s radical philosophy and it comes from his personal relationship with Christianity. Reverend Sewell uses the word “love” only twice…once in the quote “hate the sin, love the sinner” and then as a verb speaking of same sex love. She never once asks us to explore what happens when we abandon tolerance. She never gives us the chance to confront the sickness in the body of our common humanity. Where is the love that compels us to want more from those who hate us and would kill us? This is what was appalling to Martin Luther King, Jr. when he spoke of the silence of the “good people.”
I call on Rev. Sewell, our Unitarian Universalist communities and people of all religions and non-religions to start where Dr. King started, with love: love and compassion for ourselves, and our failings and our limitations and even love for our intolerances. I do not pretend that Christianity or any organized religion is innocent and pure. Certainly, hate crimes are carried out by people who claim to be acting in the name of Jesus Christ. These are despicable acts. They are crimes that deserve punishment and protection from perpetuation. But it is more important to understand that these criminals have supplanted love with fear. The real battle for the “silent good people” is to start with unconditional and transformative love. It is impossible for some, but Dr. King asked us to try. That was the beauty of his vision.
“Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this command is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.” – MLK
I have chosen to be a part of a religious community, although many of my friends do not desire to be part of religious communities. I also have people in my life that do not believe in my politics or civil rights for my sexual orientation. But in my world, I must find a way to love them all for as Dr. King says, “hate destroys the hater as well as the hated” and my goal is to build a healthy world that ultimately thrives and communicates based on love.
I am glad Dr. Lettini brought this article to my attention. She is a radical liberal Christian theologian who I admire and who I know understands the power of basing theology and social justice in love. In closing I say to Reverend Sewell that I am grateful for her insights in this article and her other writing and sermons I have heard her preach. But, in response to our many “shadow sides” I would ask that we all strive to light a chalice so that it casts no shadows shining bright with the light of love.
* “Unitarian Universalists: Who Are We? What Do We Aspire to Be?,” a presentation at the 2011 Minns Lectures by Marilyn Sewell
Text – Loving Your Enemies
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church
Montgomery, Alabama, 17 November 1957
Audio – http://archive.org/details/MlkOnLovingYourEnemies-trueLove101
Dr. Gabriella Lettini is Dean of Faculty at Starr King School for the Ministry and co-author of the book Soul Repair http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13532187-soul-repair